Will Trump Fall Prey to the Putin Trap?

By Steven L. Hall

Steven L. Hall retired from the Central Intelligence Agency in 2015 after 30 years of running and managing intelligence operations in Eurasia and Latin America.  Mr. Hall served as a member of the Senior Intelligence Service, the small cadre of officers who are the senior-most leaders of the CIA's Clandestine Service.  Most of Mr. Hall's career was spent abroad, overseeing intelligence operations in the countries of the former Soviet Union and the former Warsaw Pact.

It was good to see President Donald Trump acknowledge on Twitter recently that the Russians did indeed conduct cyber attacks and influence operations against the United States during last year’s presidential elections.  In his inimitable style, Trump unsurprisingly made the acknowledgement while criticizing the Obama administration for knowing of the Russian attacks in the summer of 2016 but not doing enough to counter them.  This is actually a fair point, and there is some agreement, even among members of President Barack Obama’s former foreign policy team, that stronger action might have been required. 

President Trump’s accusations that Obama “did nothing about it” is of course not accurate: the Obama administration messaged the Russian government using various channels that the attack was unacceptable, expelled 35 Russian diplomatic personnel from the United States, closed down two Russian diplomatic facilities in Maryland and New York, and probably undertook classified cyber measures to ensure Russian President Vladimir Putin understood America’s displeasure. 

What more could and should have been done is now the grist for presidential historians and students of the Russian-American relationship. 

A more pressing question is what the Trump administration will do now about a Russia newly invigorated by successful cyber operations, a significant presence in Syria, an important addition to the Russia Federation (Crimea), and continued success in undermining the Ukrainian government.  The Russians are watching carefully to see what Trump’s response will be.

President Trump’s public acknowledgement of the Russian election meddling comes at a good time, because Trump will have the opportunity to speak directly and forcefully with Putin at the G20 meetings in Germany.  This will be the first face-to-face meeting between the U.S. and Russian presidents, and there will be a strong temptation on the part of Trump to “get things off on the right foot” with Putin, to focus on topics on which Trump’s administration believes there may be some room for agreement.  These include such issues as cooperation on counterterrorism, specifically with regard to the Islamic State; deconfliction in Syria; and perhaps even discussions about Iran and North Korea.  Trump, like all of his recent presidential predecessors, will be inclined towards discussing relatively easier topics when talking with Putin.  This would be a mistake.

The Russians understand the standard-issue American blind spot all new American presidents have: the overwhelming desire to, in historic fashion, “fix” the Russian-American relationship.  Putin sees this blind spot coming a mile away and is prepared to capitalize on it.  The Russians hope that by emphasizing the need to destroy the Islamic State and other terrorists, and focusing on Syria (where Putin has adroitly placed Russia at the table as a key dealmaker), topics such as Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea, Russia’s continued involvement in Eastern Ukraine, and of course Russian meddling in U.S. and European elections, will be put on the back burner. 

Putin knows that by avoiding and hopefully de-escalating these contentious issues, Russia stands a better chance at having Western economic sanctions lifted.  Putin’s goal for the meeting with Trump will be to emerge with a firm handshake and a commitment to destroying ISIL and terrorism worldwide.  Having achieved that, it is but a small step to argue that countries having key strategic interests in common (Russia and the U.S. fighting terrorism, for example) should not be imposing sanctions on one another.

It is critical for the new Trump administration, which does not yet have a firm Russia policy, not to fall prey to this trap.  First and foremost, Trump and his advisors should review the recent history of cooperation with Russia: with a few small exceptions, the return on investment on such cooperation has been modest.  This has been especially true of counterterrorism.  Trump should instead clearly link the Russian behaviors that are unacceptable (election meddling in the West, forcibly changing borders in Crimea, driving the Donbas region ever closer to a frozen conflict) with the continuation of Western sanctions. 

Trump need not and should not send the message that the Russians will be somehow frozen out of Western international and economic affairs; rather, the President should indicate that before any improvements can be made in the U.S.-Russian relationship, Russia’s unacceptable behaviors must be meaningfully addressed.  What “meaningfully addressed” actually means will of course require an American Russia policy that hopefully will be coordinated with our NATO and other allies. 

The Washington Post quoted national security adviser H.R. McMaster saying Trump had tasked him to focus on confronting Russian’s destabilizing behaviors, deterring Moscow from provoking a major war, and “fostering” areas of cooperation such as North Korea and Syria.  This is not a bad starting point – if Trump sticks to his script.  To date, there have been several instances when the President has not done what his key lieutenants said he would.

Putin is good at playing the long game, and so we can expect he will follow his training as an intelligence officer: admit nothing, deny everything, and make counteraccusations. Trump and his team must make clear that if Putin takes this tack, there will be consequences.  Sanctions will stay in place, and perhaps increased.  The United States and its allies will not simply walk away from Syria, and may indeed increase their presence there, as well as support for anti-Assad forces.  And NATO will continue its increased presence along Russia’s borders, all the while expanding the West’s capabilities to conduct asymmetrical warfare (such as cyber attacks), just as Russia has already done.

All the pieces have fallen into place. Trump has stated he is a master dealmaker. He has certainly shown he is not tied down by political correctness; the president has never been described as overly-diplomatic. Trump has demonstrated his willingness to use American military might as he sees fit (cruise missiles in Syria and the “Mother of All Bombs” in Iraq being good recent examples). And now, the president has admitted that Russia did indeed take aim at American democracy during the 2016 presidential elections.  The stage could not be set better for Trump to be firm – indeed, harsh, if need be – with Putin. We will understand how Trump views Russia much better when we see the results of his meetings with the authoritarian Putin.  

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